Tag Archives: Paris

Georges Perec en Place San-Sulpice

7902560Over a weekend in 1974, Georges Perec sat in the place Saint-Sulpice and observed the world.

It’s a fascinating contrast with the very purposeful studies of space carried out by William Whyte in New York or Jan Gehl in Copenhagen, meant to assist planners and architects and city officials to design public spaces.

This is airier. Listier yet more subjective. It makes you breathe the atmosphere of every day. Perec writes:

There are many things in place Saint-Sulpice; for instance: a district council building, a financial building, a police station, three cafés, one of which sells tobacco and stamps, a movie theater, a church on which Le Vau, Gittard, Oppenord, Servandoni, and Chalgrin have all worked, and which is dedicated to a chaplain of Clotaire II, who was bishop of Bourges from 624 to 644 and whom we celebrate on 17 January, a publisher, a funeral parlor, a travel agency, a bus stop, a tailor, a hotel, a fountain decorated with the statues of four great Christian orators (Bossuet, Fénelon, Fléchier, and Masillon), a newsstand, a seller of pious objects, a parking lot, a beauty parlour, and many other things as well.

My intention in the pages that follow is to describe the rest instead: that which is generally not taken note of, that which is not noticed, that which has no importance: what happens when nothing happens other than the weather, people, cars and clouds. (3)

And he does.

He lists:

things;

trajectories;

colours;

differences;

dogs playing;

pigeons;

men in raincoats;

women with cakes;

friends who stop and chat;

friends who don’t see him;

buses;

a typology of umbrellas;

etc.

etc.

We meant to spend time there, but never quite made it there until the end, stopping by between Cafe Tournon (Chester Himes sent us there) and our hotel to pick up luggage and head off home.

It was full of a particularly impenetrable market however, the backs of white tents filling the square, hiding the fountain. Boutiques filled the roads leading to and away. It did not feel like it was supposed to. It’s atmosphere lay buried. Gone. Changed. These things happen in cities. We skirted its sides:

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The red awning belongs to the Café de la Mairie, where Perec spent part of the 18th and 20th (it was closed the 19th) of October, 1974.

He writes:

I’m eating a camembert sandwich.

It is twenty to one.

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He writes:

(Obvious limits to such an undertaking: even when my only goal is just to observe, I don’t see what takes place a few metres from me: I don’t notice, for example, that cars are parking.) (15)

later on

(fatigue)

I have now sat for hours at a time counting and recording people as they pass, and it is entirely fatiguing. Even when you have no camembert.

This little book was oddly evocative of the place and perhaps more of Perec himself.

I like him.

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Traces of the Irish in Paris

We feel ubiquitous to me sometimes; there were many traces of the Irish in Paris, and our great poverty and casting to the winds. We wandered past the Rue des Irlandais — so named because the Irish College could be found there beginning in the late 16th Century and for three more centuries eduacting Irish people. Extraordinary, more to explore there. The Irish Cultural Centre sits here now.

We wandered past the Quiet Man Pub — complete with men inside on this ridiculously hot day drinking Guinness.

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I didn’t care so much for the film as John Wayne is a dick and Maureen O’Hara was asked to play a kind of woman I hardly admire — still, there is nostalgia here as it was filmed in the next village over from where my family is from and visited by us for that reason.

On a trip across Lough Corrib to Inchagoil Island, we were serenaded by a villager there, who had been an extra in the film:

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Such lovely memories.

More intriguing is the Flann O’Brian Irish Pub, given my immense love for Flan O’Brien. I surely would have gone in there to raise a toast, but it was closed.

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Flann probably would have liked this addition to its window’s however:

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If only they had been on bikes.

We were staying across from the Jardins des Plantes, near the rue Cardinal Lemoine. Joyce lived there, and we made an aborted attempt to see the place, but then realised it was up the hill rather than down…

It was very hot you see.

That’s all I got for now on Irish people in Paris.

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Paris, the thrill is gone…

I’ve been trying to uncover what I think about Paris…

We were only there for a few days and I quite loved it. It is such a graceful and liveable city, at least in the centre. Everyone walks so much slower there. You spend time in the sidewalk cafes, in the restaurants, in the bars. No one is in a hurry. The food is good, and so is the wine. Flowers line the wrought-iron balconies. Bookshops are everywhere. Style abounds. My god, the cheese alone is a wonder. You look at some of those everyday apartment buildings, and in comparison to the new insanely expensive glass-and-steel development mushrooming along the Thames, you think to yourself that those are really what is meant by luxury flats.

None of the new abominations that hurt my soul are to be found here in the centre. None at all.

And yet. In the words of Ivan Chtcheglov, ‘We are bored in the city’.

I think it is because they (in particular Haussman) have bulldozed the mystery.

The poor were moved out to the banlieues, places that seem designed to contain and suppress their energies. We didn’t make it out to them, it felt too voyeuristic somehow. Yet I confess in most cities I have lived in, our neighbourhoods are best for a little crazy colour, street vendors, rich smells of food, music, people chilling outside, general chaos.

And the built environment? Of course, I say to myself, of course it produced the Situationists. The yearning for alleys and corners and contrasts and wonder. Because most of that is gone.

Where the crazy alleys of The Mysteries of Paris once stood, where there was

a labyrinth of obscure, crooked, and narrow streets, which extend from the Palais de Justice to Nôtre Dame.

Those teetering stairways so steep you needed a rope to climb them, those shacks and tenements and drinking dens of thieves have been converted to this:

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I am not a fan of slums, no, but this is built for cars and the control of people. Stories of romance and adventure are impossible here.

Revolution has been erased, under the statue/entrance to the metro was once the guillotine and the Terror, unsigned:

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In the Rue Transnonain barricades were thrown up during a worker’s uprising between 13-14 April, 1834 and twelve people were murdered by soldiers in response. It was intentionally erased to create a newer, wider boulevard. All of these wide and straight boulevards with their uniform buildings were created to prevent barricades, to allow soldiers and police the ability to steamroll across uprising, and to prevent escape or any cover of darkness. All that remains is one sign:

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It is no longer a site of pilgrimage and memory, apart from this remaining street name chiseled into an old wall, all that remains is this telling depiction by Daumier, down to the dead child:

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Daumier himself, one of my favourite artists who ruthlessly chronicled abuse of power and privilege, is rarely mentioned, has no museum or home or collection to remember him by that I could find.

The Paris Commune took their last stand in Père Lachaise Cemetery. Where soldiers shot dead over a hundred people, we found a simple plaque:

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Simple is all right (facing it is the grave of the Lafargue’s, Marx’s daughter Laura and her husband who committed suicide in old age so as not to be a burden on the movement. Tragic in every sense). But let us compare it to the two massive monuments here to the soldiers who lost their lives putting down their own people, part of the force that shot those 100 of our comrades dead:

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There can be no doubt of the politics of value here.

There are luckily still hints of past strangeness, another in the same cemetery (a wonderland of beloved figures to pay your respects to actually, more on that soon):

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But it is the tomb of a Scot, well, someone descended from a Scot at least, name of Robertson. My sister in law’s family probably.

All this probably underlines the connections between the urban the cultural the political. Returning to Chtcheglov, he writes:

All cities are geological and three steps cannot be taken without encountering ghosts, bearing all the prestige of their legends.

Paris has done its best to erase the ghosts. You have to know your history to feel their absence.

It should not be forgotten that modern Urbanism has not yet been an art–and even less a setting for life–it has on the other hand always been inspired by Police directives; and after all Haussman only gave us these boulevards to more conveniently bring in the cannon (Lettrist International, Potlatch no. 5).

There was one curiosity, tied in to Police directives:

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Perhaps this disturbing old bar sign also, it needs returning to in another post in terms of race and colonial politics. It sits alongside one of the older buildings sprinkled here and there, bringing relief when you find them:

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A handful of stories that could be told:

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or

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or

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We found the medieval home of Nicholas Flamel of philosopher’s stone fame, but were unable to face another meal:

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We found a few remnants of the arcades so loved by Aragon and Benjamin, vilified slightly by Zola, all of them feeling like well-preserved leftovers and decidedly private — thus very closed on a Sunday.

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Passage Vero Dodat seems quite magical despite that (and it is here that the police stumbled across Daumier’s print of the massacre at Rue Transnonain, which led to six months in prison for him):

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But Passage Choiseul feels like nothing more than a mall really (and I thought to myself, Cardiff’s arcades are so much better…)

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Even the sewers are memorialised and opened to public gaze in guided safety for a fee, in the most banal of surroundings:

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Shut when I dragged Mark to see them despite all misgivings. Sadness.

Almost all surprise, strangeness, wonder is brought to Parisian streets by lively art, détournements everywhere both playful and clever. There is Paris under the sea, and more to come. There is much to love, especially the way that people live and play in public space, and I’ll explore that too.

While there are still some narrow winding streets to lose yourself in, always you find yourself back in broad boulevards of a sameness and the mystery is mostly gone. They couldn’t kill it entirely, it is too strong for that, but they have tried.

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Thérèse Raquin and her overactive woman’s conscience

110871I have never read Zola. Well, that’s not quite true, I read about 40 pages of Germinal  years ago. It has traveled house with me twice. Thérèse Raquin is both shorter and about Paris, so it seemed a better place to start. Maybe end.

More than anything it’s about being trapped.

But first to satisfy my urbanist soul, it gives you a better idea of what those beautiful arcades of Paris — the ones softly lit and glowing along which the flâneur would stroll at his ease beneath vaulted glass ceilings — it gives you a sense of what those could mean to those who lived within them.

At the end of the Rue Guenegaud, coming from the quays, you find the Arcade of the Pont Neuf, a sort of narrow, dark corridor running from the Rue Mazarine to the Rue de Seine.

While the arcade is fictional, nothing else is, highlighted is the Rue Guenegaud:

Map of Rue Guénégaud, 75006 Paris, France

If you substitute all the words of romance and beauty for adjectives you would use to describe a graveyard in gothic style, you will arrive at Zola’s view of arcades, at least this one:

This arcade, at the most, is thirty paces long by two in breadth. It is paved with worn, loose, yellowish tiles which are never free from acrid damp. The square panes of glass forming the roof, are black with filth.

On fine days in the summer, when the streets are burning with heavy sun, whitish light falls from the dirty glazing overhead to drag miserably through the arcade. On nasty days in winter, on foggy mornings, the glass throws nothing but darkness on the sticky tiles—unclean and abominable gloom.

To the left are obscure, low, dumpy shops whence issue puffs of air as cold as if coming from a cellar. Here are dealers in toys, cardboard boxes, second-hand books. The articles displayed in their windows are covered with dust, and owing to the prevailing darkness, can only be perceived indistinctly. The shop fronts, formed of small panes of glass, streak the goods with a peculiar greenish reflex. Beyond, behind the display in the windows, the dim interiors resemble a number of lugubrious cavities animated by fantastic forms.

To the right, along the whole length of the arcade, extends a wall against which the shopkeepers opposite have stuck some small cupboards. Objects without a name, goods forgotten for twenty years, are spread out there on thin shelves painted a horrible brown colour. A dealer in imitation jewelry has set up shop in one of these cupboards, and there sells fifteen sous rings, delicately set out on a cushion of blue velvet at the bottom of a mahogany box.

Above the glazed cupboards, ascends the roughly plastered black wall, looking as if covered with leprosy, and all seamed with defacements.

He makes the same distinction that I do about space — this is not one of those places you enter to enjoy:

The Arcade of the Pont Neuf is not a place for a stroll. You take it to make a short cut, to gain a few minutes. It is traversed by busy people whose sole aim is to go quick and straight before them.

It is in this place that Thérèse is expected to live the rest of her days.  She interests me, this woman, a woman of colour really, half Arab and half French…or is her mother a pied noir?

…her brother Captain Degans brought her a little girl in his arms. He had just arrived from Algeria.

“Here is a child,” said he with a smile, “and you are her aunt. The mother is dead and I don’t know what to do with her. I’ll give her to you.”

The mercer took the child, smiled at her and kissed her rosy cheeks. Although Degans remained a week at Vernon, his sister barely put a question to him concerning the little girl he had brought her. She understood vaguely that the dear little creature was born at Oran, and that her mother was a woman of the country of great beauty. The Captain, an hour before his departure, handed his sister a certificate of birth in which Thérèse, acknowledged by him to be his child, bore his name. He rejoined his regiment, and was never seen again at Vernon, being killed a few years later in Africa.

She is abandoned as an orphan at her aunt’s, given no love for herself, no education or training or play with other children, as she grows up there are no parties, dances, church socials. She has no friends. Instead she is made rather to attend on her sickly cousin, take care of his needs, be slotted into his same limited routines, to always be quiet and good and to always put him first.

Her only taste of freedom is when they live briefly in the country, she can be by herself outside, touch the earth, lie in the grass. And then her cousin takes that away as well, and demands they move to Paris.

She marries him by the way, it was always planned that way.

I cannot express the horror such a life gives me. She sits there in the shop in this dingy arcade with her great mass of hair and her face that could be beautiful but remains ugly with no light inside of it, and there is nothing else before her. So it’s a little perplexing to me that it should be the aunt who is described as good and kind and becomes the victim, while Therese is on the wrong end of every adjective. The word sanguineous is very heavily used.

The nature of the circumstances seemed to have made this woman for this man, and to have thrust one towards the other. The two together, the woman nervous and hypocritical, the man sanguineous and leading the life of a brute, formed a powerful couple allied. The one completed the other, and they mutually protected themselves. At night, at table, in the pale light of the lamp, one felt the strength of their union, at the sight of the heavy, smiling face of Laurent, opposite the mute, impenetrable mask of Thérèse.

An interesting sidelight on the ghoulish nature of Parisians:

The morgue is a sight within reach of everybody, and one to which passers-by, rich and poor alike, treat themselves. The door stands open, and all are free to enter. There are admirers of the scene who go out of their way so as not to miss one of these performances of death. If the slabs have nothing on them, visitors leave the building disappointed, feeling as if they had been cheated, and murmuring between their teeth; but when they are fairly well occupied, people crowd in front of them and treat themselves to cheap emotions; they express horror, they joke, they applaud or whistle, as at the theatre, and withdraw satisfied, declaring the Morgue a success on that particular day.

Laurent soon got to know the public frequenting the place, that mixed and dissimilar public who pity and sneer in common.

You can imagine that once Thérèse starts reading it’s all over, any life would be better than the one she is given. All my feminist hackles rise at this of course, as they do at any mention of ‘nervous sensibility’. But god, the idea she should just content herself with her lot, with a putty face and lifeless attitude, makes me die inside.

This sudden love for reading had great influence on her temperament. She acquired nervous sensibility which caused her to laugh and cry without any motive. The equilibrium which had shown a tendency to be established in her, was upset. She fell into a sort of vague meditation. At moments, she became disturbed by thoughts of Camille, and she dreamt of Laurent and fresh love, full of terror and distrust. She again became a prey to anguish. At one moment she sought for the means of marrying her sweetheart at that very instant, at another she had an idea of running away never to see him again.

The novels, which spoke to her of chastity and honour, placed a sort of obstacle between her instincts and her will. She remained the ungovernable creature who had wanted to struggle with the Seine and who had thrown herself violently into illicit love; but she was conscious of goodness and gentleness, she understood the putty face and lifeless attitude of the wife of Olivier, and she knew it was possible to be happy without killing one’s husband. Then, she did not see herself in a very good light, and lived in cruel indecision.

Not that she has chosen her lover well. Nor did she have to kill her husband. There’s all this crap about instincts (as woman? As Algerian?) that the higher sentiments of books cannot save her from. I feel for Laurent a little as well. Zola refuses to allow him to leave his brutish peasant nature behind him for most of the story, describing his thick neck and his huge hands and his laziness…it’s often hard to remember he’s become a clerk.

For several months, he proved himself a model clerk, doing his work with exemplary brutishness.

I don’t even know what that means.

I also hate this definition of women:

But, in her terror, she showed herself a woman: she felt vague remorse, unavowed regret. She, at times, had an inclination to cast herself on her knees and beseech the spectre of Camille to pardon her, while swearing to appease it by repentance.

And god, the creepiness of this, fuck this moral, how can this be what we aspire to? And another use of the word putty, as though that is all we are, to be moulded by our environments:

The wife of Olivier, with her putty face and slow movements, now pleased Therese, who experienced strange relief in observing this poor, broken-up creature, and had made a friend of her. She loved to see her at her side, smiling with her faint smile, more dead than alive, and bringing into the shop the stuffy odour of the cemetery. When the blue eyes of Suzanne, transparent as glass, rested fixedly on those of Thérèse, the latter experienced a beneficent chill in the marrow of her bones.

Poor Laurent only gets to escape his peasantness through the murder, before he was too full of life to be a proper artist, too much the peasant, but he is transformed — a fellow comes to see his work and is amazed by the sudden appearance of talent:

The artist had no idea of the frightful shock this man had received, and which had transformed him, developing in him the nerves of a woman, along with keen, delicate sensations. No doubt a strange phenomenon had been accomplished in the organism of the murderer of Camille. It is difficult for analysis to penetrate to such depths. Laurent had, perhaps, become an artist as he had become afraid, after the great disorder that had upset his frame and mind.

Previously, he had been half choked by the fulness of his blood, blinded by the thick vapour of breath surrounding him. At present, grown thin, and always shuddering, his manner had become anxious, while he experienced the lively and poignant sensations of a man of nervous temperament. In the life of terror that he led, his mind had grown delirious, ascending to the ecstasy of genius. The sort of moral malady, the neurosis wherewith all his being was agitated, had developed an artistic feeling of peculiar lucidity. Since he had killed, his frame seemed lightened, his distracted mind appeared to him immense; and, in this abrupt expansion of his thoughts, he perceived exquisite creations, the reveries of a poet passing before his eyes. It was thus that his gestures had suddenly become elegant, that his works were beautiful, and were all at once rendered true to nature, and life-like.

So yes. Surprising more artists and poets don’t kill people.  Both Thérèse and Laurent are trapped, inside of their natures, and inside crippling social mores, and inside this gloomy arcade. They were already buried alive in a way, even before they took the final step.

I was pretty happy when this book came to an end. But God, you can see what people are fleeing from as they run to Algeria, to America, to anywhere they can breathe freely, try to make of themselves what they can, live unfettered. You can see where the violence might come from that drove the terrible, unforgivable things that they did to make this new life for themselves.

A lot to think about here…Apparently for thinking about development and cities I really should have read La Curée and L’Argent, we shall see if I am able to face them. Germinal might go on the life-is-just-too-short pile, however.

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Balzac: City, Country & Speculation in Le Pere Goriot

I enjoyed Father Goriot more than I thought I would.

Stately Paris ignores the existence of these faces bleached by moral or physical suffering; but, then, Paris is in truth an ocean that no line can plumb. You may survey its surface and describe it; but no matter how numerous and painstaking the toilers in this sea, there will always be lonely and unexplored regions in its depths, caverns unknown, flowers and pearls and monsters of the deep overlooked or forgotten by the divers of literature. The Maison Vauquer is one of these curious monstrosities.

Reading this rush of French literature I realised just how anglocentric I had become when it came to anything written over a hundred years ago — particularly in the 1800s, I was too busy reading Dickens there for a while.

There is so much to explore here, not least exciting (well, actually, to my mind it was the least exciting) being the story itself. It’s a good enough story and after so many depressing and ‘realistic’ novels (I just finished something by Zola, my god), I confess I loved being told up front that everything ended happy ever after, though you never see it all work out. I was rather fascinated that seeing how it all works out had quite a nice amount of dramatic tension. Zola has a dig at melodrama, though this was also published in serial form in 1834-35 (note to self to look more into publishing forms) it has the feel of something written as a whole. This is before The Mysteries of Paris, so he’s not talking about that when he writes:

That word drama has been somewhat discredited of late; it has been overworked and twisted to strange uses in these days of dolorous literature; but it must do service again here, not because this story is dramatic in the restricted sense of the word, but because some tears may perhaps be shed intra et extra muros before it is over.

I feel that this sentence still holds true. Funny that.

Perhaps what I liked most is that, like Dickens, this is a window on a physical world long disappeared, and Paris is revealed in an immensity of detail that engages all of the senses:

Will any one without the walls of Paris understand it? It is open to doubt. The only audience who could appreciate the results of close observation, the careful reproduction of minute detail and local color, are dwellers between the heights of Montrouge and Montmartre, in a vale of crumbling stucco watered by streams of black mud, a vale of sorrows which are real and joys too often hollow; but this audience is so accustomed to terrible sensations, that only some unimaginable and well-neigh impossible woe could produce any lasting impression there.

In a way I think those of us without the walls of Paris might enjoy it more as we an enter another place and another way of life and we are not trapped there like so many of the protagonists. The centre of the story is this boarding house, the lives of those on the edges of most desperate poverty that are still called middle-class — it is descriptions like this that make me realise just how far everyday life for most of us has come, the comforts we take for granted. But this is class and city as prison:

PROCESSION IN FRONT OF SAINTE-GENEVIÈVE Meunier, fecit (Carnavalet Museum)
PROCESSION IN FRONT OF SAINTE-GENEVIÈVE
Meunier, fecit (Carnavalet Museum)

The lodging-house is Mme. Vauquer’s own property. It is still standing in the lower end of the Rue Nueve-Sainte-Genevieve, just where the road slopes so sharply down to the Rue de l’Arbalete, that wheeled traffic seldom passes that way, because it is so stony and steep. This position is sufficient to account for the silence prevalent in the streets shut in between the dome of the Pantheon and the dome of the Val-de-Grace, two conspicuous public buildings which give a yellowish tone to the landscape and darken the whole district that lies beneath the shadow of their leaden-hued cupolas.

In that district the pavements are clean and dry, there is neither mud nor water in the gutters, grass grows in the chinks of the walls. The most heedless passer-by feels the depressing influences of a place where the sound of wheels creates a sensation; there is a grim look about the houses, a suggestion of a jail about those high garden walls. A Parisian straying into a suburb apparently composed of lodging-houses and public institutions would see poverty and dullness, old age lying down to die, and joyous youth condemned to drudgery. It is the ugliest quarter of Paris, and, it may be added, the least known. But, before all things, the Rue Nueve-Sainte-Genevieve is like a bronze frame for a picture for which the mind cannot be too well prepared by the contemplation of sad hues and sober images. Even so, step by step the daylight decreases, and the cicerone’s droning voice grows hollower as the traveler descends into the Catacombs. The comparison holds good! Who shall say which is more ghastly, the sight of the bleached skulls or of dried-up human hearts?

Yet still, for all this value-laden description, this place is still far more closely tied to the country than any city I know of today. This too I find fascinating, thinking not just about food chains and how we sustain ourselves, but also perceptions of things:

The central space between the walls is filled with artichokes and rows of pyramid fruit-trees, and surrounded by a border of lettuce, pot-herbs, and parsley. Under the lime-trees there are a few green-painted garden seats and a wooden table, and hither, during the dog-days, such of the lodgers as are rich enough to indulge in a cup of coffee come to take their pleasure, though it is hot enough to roast eggs even in the shade.

Imagine this written today, in terms of celebration of fresh, organic and local produce, self-sufficiency, lowered carbon footprints. But wait, there’s more:

Behind the house a yard extends for some twenty feet, a space inhabited by a happy family of pigs, poultry, and rabbits; the wood-shed is situated on the further side, and on the wall between the wood-shed and the kitchen window hangs the meat-safe, just above the place where the sink discharges its greasy streams. The cook sweeps all the refuse out through a little door into the Rue Nueve-Sainte-Genevieve, and frequently cleanses the yard with copious supplies of water, under pain of pestilence.

It’s like a little city farm, this lodging house. In comparison with my own lodging it seems potentially idyllic once I strip Balzac’s adjectives away. Though I suppose it might have been fairly ripe, especially in the summer.

I cease to feel that so strongly when we venture inside — I love this description of smell, always so evocative of a kind of place, joining different buildings together in the imagination:

The first room exhales an odor for which there is no name in the language, and which should be called the odeur de pension. The damp atmosphere sends a chill through you as you breathe it; it has a stuffy, musty, and rancid quality; it permeates your clothing; after-dinner scents seem to be mingled in it with smells from the kitchen and scullery and the reek of a hospital.

In short, there is no illusory grace left to the poverty that reigns here; it is dire, parsimonious, concentrated, threadbare poverty; as yet it has not sunk into the mire, it is only splashed by it, and though not in rags as yet, its clothing is ready to drop to pieces.

Meet it’s owner — and the brilliance of this disagreeable little description:

She is an oldish woman, with a bloated countenance, and a nose like a parrot’s beak set in the middle of it; her fat little hands (she is as sleek as a church rat) and her shapeless, slouching figure are in keeping with the room that reeks of misfortune, where hope is reduced to speculate for the meanest stakes.

This is the world inhabited by those trying to emerge from poverty into the world up above, and those on the opposite trajectory, sinking tragically down. The world of the renter, at the mercy of others and unsupported by property. Perhaps that is the defining sadness of this place, the flow of transience, hopes, more often illness and despair. This is a place though, where I’d love to be able to jump back in time, experience, decide for myself.

I’d like also to meet the cat Mistigris.

It’s a fictional road of course, but there is a whole website dedicated to finding Balzac’s Paris I’d like to return to.

Apart from the relationship between home and food and renting and owning and sustainability, there is a later fascinating section in here about the forces moving to destroy places just such as this and reshape the whole of the city. Here is Madame Nucingen explaining the nature of her vile husband’s work:

Do you know what he means by speculations? He buys up land in his own name, then he finds men of straw to run up houses upon it. These men make a bargain with a contractor to build the houses, paying them by bills at long dates; then in consideration of a small sum they leave my husband in possession of the houses, and finally slip through the fingers of the deluded contractors by going into bankruptcy. The name of the firm of Nucingen has been used to dazzle the poor contractors. I saw that. I noticed, too, that Nucingen had sent bills for large amounts to Amsterdam, London, Naples, and Vienna, in order to prove if necessary that large sums had been paid away by the firm. How could we get possession of those bills?

What a novel this is for an urbanist, though I know I am among many to mine its treasures as David Harvey’s book on Paris has a whole chapter on Balzac. Still, for my own pleasure there is more to come.

For more on writing cities…

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The Mysteries of Paris (a la Eugène Sue )

Poster announcing the publication of Les Mystères de Paris (1843), a French language novel by Eugène Sue (1804-1857)
Poster announcing the publication of Les Mystères de Paris (1843), a French language novel by Eugène Sue (1804-1857)

Eugene Sue has raised himself above the horizon of his own narrow world view. He has delivered a slap in the face of bourgeois prejudice.
–Karl Marx

How could anyone resist a back-cover blurb like that? Along with a slap, Sue also delivered a fairly rip-roaring story of good and evil and murder and love and hate and an immensity of sentimentality as it involves both princes and thieves, but really, you can’t care too much about that because it is what it is and it’s entirely enjoyable.

Well, until the last few chapters, maybe even the last third. Sue was just dragging shit out by then. You can tell it was published in 90 installments as one of the first serial novels, but there is something quite wonderful about this sprawling art form published in the Journal des débats from 19 June 1842 until 15 October 1843.

I am so glad Karl Marx found it irresistible.

It opens on the streets in the cité:

a labyrinth of obscure, crooked, and narrow streets, which extend from the Palais de Justice to Nôtre Dame.

Wretched houses, with scarcely a window, and those of worm-eaten frames, without any glass; dark, infectious-looking alleys led to still darker looking staircases, so steep that they could only be ascended by the aid of ropes fastened to the damp walls by iron hooks; the lower stories of some of these houses were occupied by sellers of charcoal, tripemen, or vendors of impure meat; and notwithstanding the little value of these commodities, the windows of the miserable shops were barred with iron, so much did the owners fear the bold robbers of this quarter. (9)

cite_1862

And so we come to the Rue aux Fèves, where our hero Rodolphe saves our heroine La Goualouse (but wait, it’s probably not quite what you think):

Theodor Josef Hubert Hoffbauer - Le cabaret du Lapin Blanc, rue aux Fèves, 1875-1882
Theodor Josef Hubert Hoffbauer – Le cabaret du Lapin Blanc, rue aux Fèves, 1875-1882 (after it had been demolished through Haussmanisation around 1860)

and they go to the Lapin Blanc:

It was a long, low room into which they entered, with smoky ceiling and black rafters, badly lighted by the murky rays of a miserable lamp. The whitewashed walls were covered with vulgar sketches, or with sentences in slang; the floor of beaten earth and salt was covered with mud; an armful of straw was placed at the foot of the counter or bar of the Ogresse instead of a carpet, and this was situated near the door, and under the lamp on each side of this room there were placed six tables, one end of each, as well as the benches, nailed to the walls. (15)

lapin_blanc_avant_demolition-f2e70

They just don’t build shit like this anymore. Nor would it remain standing much longer. Of course, Sue was probably paid by the word and thus paid to describe in detail, but I am so glad he did. The ogresse watches the bar, rents rooms, and rents clothes to young women — the book never calls her a procures but it is clear she also plays this kind of role. But I won’t give the plot away, wikipedia does that quite well.

This all takes place only a few years before the uprisings and barricades and attempts at revolution in 1848, those heady years fomented in just such small cafes in the cité. It is why Haussman was so determined to demolish them, along with the narrow labyrinths of streets so easily defended. But that all comes later.

There is no hint of revolution here, just greed and some terribly involved crimes and some very simple ones. This is, in fact, rather a reactionary tale — like in the way that blood defines character for example, so when La Goualouse ends up back in prison

I asked some of them who slept in the same room with her what was the cause of the difference [deference? Sic] shown her. ‘That’s more than we can tell,’ they answered: ‘it is plain she is not one of us.‘ ‘But who told you so?’ ‘No one told us: we see it in a thousand things. For instance, lat night, before she went to bed, she went on her knees and said her prayers; as she prays, as La Louve said, she must have a right to pray. (218)

God, the good old days when only the better classes with their blameless lives had the right to pray.

There is a black physician, rescued from American slavery, who is kind and good and wise. That’s a nice change, and almost undoubtedly a jab at America (this nationalist pride probably also explains the English nobleman in humble service of the European Prince). This book is reactionary on the subject of race in every other respect — there’s noticably no mention of Haiti here and I’ll get to Algiers in a bit. But first there is David’s wife who is a creole light enough to pass, and of course she is beautiful and unbalanced and Sue makes a fine art of insulting people here:

Her detestable predilections, for some time restrained by her real attachment for David, were developed in Europe; civilisation and the climactical influence of the North had tempered the violence, modified the expression. Instead of casting herself violently on her prey, and thinking only, like her compeers. to destroy as soon as possible their life and fortune, Cecily, fixing on her victims her magnetic glances, commenced by attracting them, little by little, into the blazing whirlwind which seemed to emanate from her… (283)

There is a great deal more in this vein and she causes an evil man to lose his reason entirely as part of a plot of vengeance on the side of good. That gets a bit confusing, but she’s clearly just in here to ratchet up the sex quotient (hard to do with everyone so good and pure). This involves some quite extraordinary detailed descriptions of her Alsatian costume (she’s in disguise involving a shortish skirt showing some leg and a laced up bodice) that would please the most OCD of fetishists. I know a lot more about race, class and corsets in 1840s France than I did before this book.

There is a whole lot here about female purity and the ways that shame can never be forgotten nor forgiven, the infuriating view that rape is always somehow the woman’s fault and she is never pure as a woman should be after. In fact, she’s better dead or in a nunnery. There’s a whole lot of stupid aristocratic nonsense. The Saxe-Gotha almanach makes an appearance. Another unbalanced woman. Once this story starts heading for these exalted shores it becomes much less interesting I confess. But given my interest in the intertwined histories of Europe and its colonies, it is fascinating that Rodolphe sends the thieves who have repented of their past off to Algiers to forge their new future.

I think in some ways this is the dream that Europeans and white Americans (and white Africans and Australians and etc etc) held to most — that opportunity to go somewhere, find some land, leave behind what you were and reinvent yourself anew. A new chance, a new and better future you define for yourself rather than entrapment into the one you were born into.

…they mutually congratulated each other on the agreeable prospects before them in Algiers.

And so everything was sacrificed, above all those occupying the land that financed and made reinvention possible. Those original occupants had to be made less. Even the infamous empathy of our heroine does not even give a quiver at this:

To end your family of protégés, my lord, I will add that Germain has read in the papers that Martial, a planter in Algiers, has been spoken of with great praise for the courage he has shown in repulsing, at the head of his farmers, an attack of thievish Arabs, and that his wife, as intrepid as himself, had been slightly wounded in the side while she was discharging her gun like a real grenadier. From that time…she has been called Madame Carabine. (365)

That’s one for the women, but only in defense of white privilege to take over farms by conquest. Here the roots of the pied noirs and the bloody conflict stretching across years and decades and as formative of France as it would be of Algeria. As a footnote, but I am always fascinated by just how much the colonies infuse the consciousness and the stories of the colonisers when you look.

For more on Paris…

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Fantasia, an Algerian Cavalcade

457864I quite loved this raising of women’s voices that plays with the deeply collective nature of their experience. It acknowledges the strengths of an enforced world of women hidden away behind veils and walls,  but also its high walls and limitations, examining the fractures in that world as women support the independence struggle, receive an education, travel to Paris. They are both joyful and devastating fractures. This narrative from multiple viewpoints in time and space struggles with an undifferentiated mass of understanding, survival of a life cycle where freedom of streets and speech end before puberty and all else folds in on the family and other women, but also those women who have been torn like splinters from it, whether through education or the freedom struggle. There is pride in this heritage, and also frustration. Nothing is easy and nothing is entirely one thing or the other.

She writes:

How could a woman speak aloud, even in Arabic, unless on the threshold of extreme age? How could she say ‘I’, since that would be to scorn the blanket-formulae which ensure that each individual journeys through life in a collective resignation? . . .

my oral tradition has gradually been overlaid and is in danger of vanishing: at the age of eleven or twelve I was abruptly ejected from this theatre of feminine confidences — was I thereby spared from having to silence my humble pride? in writing of my childhood memories I am taken back to those bodies bereft of voices. to attempt an autobiography using French words alone is to lend oneself to the vivisector’s scalpel, revealing what lies beneath the skin. the flesh flakes off, and with it, seemingly, the last shreds of the unwritten language of my childhood. (156)

The complications of relationships around gender fold into the complications of the colonial relationships fold into the complications of being a writer and a women emerging from then women’s world of illiteracy and oral tradition. It is a swirl of what is lost and what is gained negotiating all of these sides, and a needed counterpoint to the more straightforward narratives of the French/Algerian struggle narrated so eloquently by Mouloud Feraoun,  and Alistair Horne.

It is the French as the Other:

The policeman and his family suddenly seemed like transient ghosts in this locality, whereas these images, these objects became the true inhabitants of the place! For me, these French homes gave off a different smell, a mysterious light; for me, the French are still ‘The Others’, and I am still hypnotized by their shores.

Throughout my childhood, just before the war which was to bring us independence, I never crossed a single French threshold, I never entered the home of a single French schoolfellow… (23)

It is the French use of language, and their imprisoning within their own ideologies and stories, contrasted with young Algerian women:

But what is the significance behind the urge of so many fighting men to relive in print this month of July 1830? Did their writings allow them to savor the seducer’s triumph, the rapist’s intoxication? These texts are distributed in the Paris of Louis-Phillipe, far from Algerian soil…Their words thrown up by such a cataclysm are for me like a comet’s tail, flashing across the sky and leaving it forever riven.

And words themselves become a decoration, flaunted by officers like the carnations they wear in their buttonholes; words will become their most effective weapons. Hordes of interpreters, geographers, ethnographers, linguists, botanists, diverse scholars and professional scribblers will swoop down on this new prey. The supererogatory protuberances of their publications will form a pyramid to hide the initial violence from view.

The girls who were my friends and accomplices during my village holidays wrote in the same futile, cryptic language because they were confined, because they were prisoners; they mark their marasmus* with their own identity in an attempt to rise above their pathetic plight. The accounts of this past invasion reveal a contrario an identical nature: invaders who imagine they are taking the impregnable City, but who wander aimlessly in the undergrowth of their own disquiet. (45)

It explores the collectivity of women created by time and tradition and strict rules. One of the narrator’s sits outside of this, she receives a love letter and somehow feels it is for all:

those women who never received a letter: no word taut with desire, stretched like a bow, no message run through with supplication. (60)

There exists the fact that husbands always referred to as ‘he’ and not by name because for each woman there can be only one he, a multitude of unnamed men to match the multitude of women present. A tradition that beats individuality off with a stick, disciplines human being into the roles laid out for them.

You escape Algeria momentarily for Paris, the uneasy relationship, love found between two young people there, even as they remain trapped in the webs of revolutionary fratricidal violence:

The couple continued to roam the streets, chatting together, momentarily free of the others and the ‘Revolution’; nevertheless, even if their embraces in a doorway could not claim that they were making history, still their happiness was part of the collective fever, and they were always on the look-out to see if they were being shadowed and to throw the police off their trail. But the police were not seen to be the greatest danger…the couple knew that the secret fratricidal struggle was all around them….

As they strolled through the Paris streets together, at every crossroads the girl’s eyes instinctively avoided the tricolour flag whose red reminded her of the blood of her compatriots recently guillotined in a Lyons prison…(102).

Here a woman finds freedom and expression and space in the streets without being the prostitutes idealised by Breton or Soupault, without being the flaneuse or nightwalker.

A woman walks alone one night in Paris. Walking for walking’s sake, to try to understand…Searching for words and so dream no more, wait no longer.

Rue Richelieu, ten, eleven o’clock at night; the autumn air is damp, To understand . . . Where will this tunnel of interior silence lead? Just the act of walking, just to put one foot energetically down in front of the other, feeling my hips swinging, sensing my body lightly moving, makes my life seem brighter and the walls, all the walls vanish . . .

While the solitude of these recent months dissolves in the fresh cool tints of the nocturnal landscape, suddenly the voice bursts forth. It drains off all the scoriae of the past. What voice? is it my voice, scarcely recognizable? (115)

Some find voice in the city streets of Paris. Some find voice in the French language. But always it comes at a cost:

As if the French language suddenly had eyes, and lent them to me to see into liberty; as if the French language blinded the peeping-toms of my clan and, at this price, I could move freely, run headlong down every street, annex the outdoors for my cloistered companions, for the matriarchs of my family who endured a living death. As it . . . Derision! I know that every language is a dark depository for piled-up corpses, refuse, sewage, but faced with the language of the former conqueror, which offers me its ornaments, its jewels, its flowers, I find they are flowers of death… (181)

And yet…

To refuse to veil one’s voice and to start ‘shouting’, that was really indecent, real dissidence.

Writing in a foreign language, not in either of the tongues of my native country…writing has brought me to the cries of the women silently rebelling in my youth, to my own true origins.

Writing does not silence the voice, but awakens it, above all to resurrect so many vanished sisters. (204)

Nothing can sit easily here. Nothing avoids contradictions.

After more than a century of French occupation — which ended not long ago in such butchery — a similar no-man’s land still exists between the French and the indigenous languages, between two national memories: the French tongue, with its body and voice, has established a proud presidio within me, while the mother-tongue, all oral tradition, all rags and tatters, resists and attacks between two breathing spaces. In time to the rhythm of the rebato, I am alternately the besieged foreigner and the native swaggering off to die, so there is seemingly endless strife between the spoken and written word (215)

A story comes near the end of the book, interspersed with an old woman telling of her hardships in supporting the freedom struggle, the house burned down about her, tramping into the hills. Burying her sons. A young woman joining the struggle. Burying her brother. This story of a wedding, a celebration of women to which uninvited guests can come and watch but cannot remove their veils and join in.

As if they were finding a way of forgetting their imprisonment, getting their own back on the men who kept them in the background: the males — father, sons, husband — were shut out once and for all by the women themselves who, in their own domain, began to impose the veil in turn on others. (205)

It mourns and celebrates the opening up of this world, the freeing of women and men from these bonds, and looks uneasily into the future and the crushing of contradictions and the voices that they made possible.

I wait amid the shatter sheaf of sounds, I wait, forseeing he inevitable moment when the mare’s hoof will strike down any woman who dares to stand up freely, will trample all life that comes out into the sunlight to dance! Yes, in spite of the tumult of my people all around, I already hear, even before it arises and pierces the harsh sky, I head the death cry in the Fantasia.

Paris/Venice/Algiers
(July ’82–October ’84)

*severe malnutrition characterized by energy deficiency.

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Conversations with Chester Himes

395789Chester Himes is an author whose work I really love, and this has been sitting on my shelf forever. It starts out a bit disappointing — a bit gossipy about Dick and Jimmy and others. Complaining of this I was reminded that this was pre-internet in French, and what was the likelihood of it getting any circulation?

There was much less need to be cagey in those days.

Still, it is nice to think of Richard Wright and being so generous — once giving Himes $1000 when only asked for $500, giving money to James Baldwin to allow him to finish revising one of his novels and helping him get the Saxton Fellowship. The interviews get better, more thoughtful, perhaps more sober as Himes gets older.

his words stand for themselves really.

I did particularly love some of the details, like this description of his studio in Paris

Himes lives at Saint-Germain-des-Pres, in a top-floor studio on rue Bourbon-le-Chateau. you have to stoop in order to get inside. Nearly everything there is red: the carpeting, a vase of roses, and even an angrily-daubed abstract canvas.
(Francois Bott, 1964)

This was the flat that Melvin Van Peebles moved into. Sweet Sweetback himself.

I love Coffin Ed and Gravedigger Jones, love the Harlem novels, loved to read this:

I was very happy writing those detective stories, especially the first one, when I began it. I wrote those stories with more pleasure than I wrote any of the other stories. And then when I got the end and started my detective shooting at some white people, I was the happiest. (49)

This also reminded me, in a way that still jars slightly with that understanding of America that I learned in school and somehow no amount of education and experience can quite eradicate completely, of the way that the US is founded on violence and how that runs through absolutely everything:

Cause no one, no one, writes about violence the way that Americans do. (47)

Anyway, you know, there is no way that one can evaluate the American scene and avoid violence, because any country that was born in violence and has lived in violence always knows about violence. Anything can be initiated, enforced, contained or destroyed on the American scene through violence. That’s the only thing that’s ever made any change, because they have an inheritance of violence; it comes straight from the days of slavery, from the first colonialists who landed on the American shores, the first slaves, through the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, the Indian wars, and gunslingers killing one another over fences and sheep and one goddamn thing or another; they grew up on violence. And not only that, it’s gotten to be so much a part of the country that they are at the place where they are refining the history of their violence. (62)

It reminds me also how many writers moved abroad to achieve a basic dignity in life.

The only reason for going to Paris is just to have a certain amount of freedom of movement for a limited period of time. (64)

Writers of colour, that is.

WIlliams: What about your experience with white expatriate writers?
Himes: I don’t have any experiences with white expatriate writers. (69)

Later Michel Fabre would ask him if living in Europe had changed him?

Of course. Here a Negro becomes a human being. There’s nothing grotesque about a black man meeting a white woman here. There’s nothing unnatural. (127)

and in describing for him why he stayed in Paris and NY (and responding to a question from Miotte about why not NY), Himes says:

France was an escape from racial prejudice in the publishing industry. I believe that America allows only one black man at a time to become successful from writing, and I don’t think this has changed. France seems to be a place where my talent would make me as successful as Alexandre Dumas. (121)

Himes describes the regular get togethers at the Café Tournon, with Himes, Dick Wright to a limited extent, the centre of them Ollie Harrington. John A. Williams, unsurprisingly, carried out my favourite interviews, a long and nicely in depth one. This is my favourite story from it:

Dick was a compulsive conversationalist in the early hours of the morning. When he woke up he had to telephone somebody and have a long conversation. When Ollie wasn’t there he had to find someone else–Daniel Guérin or even Jean-Paul Sartre. But they got tired of these conversations, so he chose Ollie. As long as Ollie was in town Dick would telephone him as soon as he woke up in the morning, whether Ollie was awake or not (it didn’t make any difference) and have long conversations about the CIA and the race problem and all. You know, that kind of conversation doesn’tgo down too well at seven-thirty in the morning. (77)
— John A. Williams 1970

Michel Fabre, following on the heels of this in the same year of 1970, focused on writing:

I think that writing should be a force in the world. I just don’t believe it is. It seems incapable of changing things. (89)

and Himes’ relationship to Harlem:

…most American black people have kept to ghettos for many reasons, but mainly to hide from the prejudice and the arrogance of white people, and because they wanted to be together, for protection, and togetherness. I didn’t do this, and this is part of the reason why I have to explain myself.  (89)

To David Jenkins in 1971 he gives his thoughts on struggle, which he novelised of course, though didn’t in the end finish it:

I have never fully endorsed the black movements, although I have supported both the Black Muslims–I was a friend of Malcolm X–and the Panthers. I don’t think they will succeed because they are too used to publicity, and a successful revolution must be planned with secrecy, security.

Yet there is no reason why 100,000 blacks armed with automatic rifles couldn’t literally go underground, into the subways and basements of Manhattan–and take over. The basements of those skyscrapers are the strongest part of the building…This was the novel I was wring, and I don’t know if I have the energy or determination to finish it. (102)

The last interview with Michel Fabre in 1983 focused a lot on writing, and I always love to know other people’s routines:

I like to get up early, have a big breakfast, and work at one stretch until it’s time for lunch. If the mail is good, I generally go one with my writing. If it’s bad, my mind is disturbed for the rest of the day. I have nearly always typed my manuscripts, without consulting any reference books or dictionaries. In my hotel room in Paris I only needed cigarettes, a bottle of scotch, and occasionally a good dish of meat and vegetables cooking on the burner behind me. Writing’s always whetted my appetite. (130)

Fabre says he’s sometimes been called a ‘surrealist’ writer, which I suppose makes some sense, I quite love Himes’ answer:

I didn’t become acquainted with that term until the fifties, and French friends had to explain it. I have no literary relationship with what is called the surrealist school. It just so happens that in the lives of black people, there are so many absurd situations, made that way by racism, that black life could sometimes be described as surrealistic. (140)

(Fabre, Michel and Robert E Skinner (eds). (1995) Conversations With Chester Himes. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi. )

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